Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

Directed by Paul Schrader

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Mishima is centered around the suicide of a famous writer, Yukio Mishima.  Each of the four chapters is preceded by the ‘present,’ the day leading up to his death through seppuku, a ritualistic suicide through disembowelment.  The rest of the film tells stories from Mishima’s life, narrated by Mishima himself.  There is a sense of grandiosity as we lead up to his death, but in the end his suicide feels wholly underwhelming and pointless.

The film, in many ways, glorifies the acts of the famous writer, dealing with his own humiliations, perseverance and many successes.  Mishima feels like a conventional biopic in this way, charting his rise as a famous writer from humble beginnings, and yet we know on some level that his imminent death is part of his madness.  The question I’m still trying to understand is whether that madness is looked up at in awe or with disdain.

This film is hard to really gauge in one viewing.  It is a combination of realistic, absurd and even playful.  There are several set pieces meant to stand in for real life but which don’t bother hiding that they are filmed on a small set.  In the first chapter, a young Mishima learns about women and struggling with his own limits (a stutter) in a colorful staged environment which it took me a moment to realize was meant to be taken as real. There isn’t a clear separation between these types of scenes, in which you might as well be watching a staged play and the scenes filmed on location.  It blurs the lines between real and performative and suggests that the whole thing, all of Mishima’s life is some kind of performance.

Mishima goes through several transformations throughout the film, either just because of the jump forward in time or because of a conscious effort to remake himself in a new image.  As a young man, Mishima desperately wants to join the military and die in battle, but he succumbs to his own cowardice and fakes an illness to get out of military service.  This self-doubt and self-hatred stemming from this guilt drives Mishima to reform himself into the image of a warrior.  As he becomes a famous writer, he creates a kind of Johnny Cash bad boy image, and later he decides to become a body builder.

In another moment, to pay off debts owed by his mother, Mishima sells himself to a woman to be a sex object for her to do with what she will.  She beats him and cuts him, and he takes it either as punishment or as some kind of honor, it’s hard to tell.

Mishima’s obsession with performance and creating a message reaches beyond his writing.  He decides that words can only accomplish so much and the real message is in his actions.  When he commits seppuku, he does so after giving what is meant to be a rousing speech, but the crowd hardly listens.  Mishima is humiliated, but it’s unclear if he’s deterred by their reaction.  He goes through with his suicide, and he explains in one of his stories (and through voiceover) how the character (him) saw light flash before his eyes as he died.  Mishima looks up and we cut to the sun rising over the distant horizon, so that we see what Mishima imagined we might see right before our death.

So the film ultimately conveys the same tone as Mishima’s own stories.  This feels like a movie Mishima himself might have directed.  I have to imagine he held his convictions all the way until the end, and this story gives him a sense of honor in death, even after showing a moment of doubt.

When the film ended, my first thoughts were about Roger Ebert’s review of Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, a fictional account of the days leading up to Kurt Cobain’s suicide.  In his review, he spoke of the pointlessness and lack of beauty to the man’s death.  There is nothing pretty about the character wandering around, high out of his mind.  His death isn’t meaningful, and it’s not clear that the character wanted or expected his death to be meaningful.

Suicide, then, feels rarely like a message and more about self-expression only in the sense that it’s all the person has left.  But For Mishima, it’s only the final stage of his self-expression because he can’t be around to add anything to it.

There’s a scene in which a man tells Mishima that one should commit suicide at a certain point in life because after that point they can only die of decay.  Mishima is so concerned with perfecting himself and becoming warrior-like, that suicide in such a fashion is the only way he’s willing to die.  But it’s also about the message, again, because as he himself says, actions speak louder than words.  And I guess he’s right because his death wasn’t the last form of his self-expression.  It’s the last time he had control of the message, but his death has been discussed, written about and put back together in this movie.

I think he wanted to find life after death, and depending on how you define “life,” maybe he did.

I found this film incredibly challenging to watch, and in the end I was only left with my impressions of Mishima as a slightly other-worldly person rather than a real person.  Somewhere along the line he completed the transformation from real to symbolic, and I think the film as a whole reflects that development, similar in a way to Charlie Kauffman’s Synecdoche, New York.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters feels mostly abstract, even if it deals with the facts of Mishima’s life.  The title suggests that Mishima’s life can be boiled down into these four chapters, like his life is nothing more than another fictional character’s story, which now I suppose it is, at least isolated within the context of this film.  I might have to read a story or two of his to find out more about Yukio Mishima, and that might be the point of his death in the way he did it.  Mishima’s suicide was a message, and I don’t know if this film is made if he’s still alive or died in a less glorified, discussed, extreme fashion.

So then, is this film glorifying Mishima’s suicide?  I’m reluctant to say that it is, but I think there is an understanding for director Paul Schrader that this film is only being made because of the interest regarding Mishima’s suicide.

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